One of the most difficult aspects of accompanying organizational transformations like when a company starts off on their Lean journey, is restraining your zeal. And this is particularly the case when statements are made and opinions are ventilated that run counter to the principles and ideas of the (internal) consultant or coach or even the Lean principles for that matter. The Socratic method of motivation, however, presumes interaction without any presuppositions, without any value judgment. It stresses non-value-based, or one could say “worthless”, interaction. It isn’t about the values and norms of the coach, but about the ball being in the organization’s court. It is an important approach in creating an autonomous Lean organization, but in some situations also not the only one.
The Socratic Method
One of the maxims of Socrates — a Greek philosopher that lived in the 5th century before Christ — was: “I know one thing, that I know nothing”. It represents the starting point for the Socratic method of motivation: we don’t know better than our discussion partner. We assume a non-value-based attitude and we go search for the motives of the discussion partner. The Socratic method of motivation therefore probably is the only motivational strategy that takes the word “motivate” seriously. That is that “to motivate” has nothing to do with change. It isn’t about “motivating someone” (to behave differently), but it is about “motivating” (current behavior). To motivate means “to put forward one’s arguments” and “to give reasons” or “justify”. So people are always motivated, and motivating in itself only makes the motives of a person or organization come to light.
A nice analogy to describe the concept of the Socratic method of motivation is to think of your discussion partner as being a river. The river runs into a certain direction and takes a certain course as a result of its banks. As a consultant or coach, you do not play the role of the river-bank, but you have to search for the river’s banks. As it are the river-banks that hold the arguments for the river’s course. The banks allow the river to go where it goes, and where it cannot go. It therefore is of great importance to find the river-banks of your discussion partner, and have the banks together with the river determine their new course if there needs to be one.
The river-banks that influence the motives of your discussion partner may be the leaders of the organization or the direct supervisor, any direct or indirect colleagues in other departments or functions, but also people in the private sphere. Do not forget to think about river-banks in the form of personal objectives, bonuses, formal procedures and legal requirements. But as many of these river-banks are man-made in an organizational context, particularly the leaders play an important role. Their signals (or absence thereof), the consistency in their communication, application of principles, and the consistency of decisions with the company’s vision and strategy, as well as their exemplary behavior are all like river-banks to their teams and the organization’s associates. Unclear banks make a swamp out of a river, absent banks make a river into an endless sea. Furthermore, the consultant or coach should take care no to be positioned in the role of a river-bank by the leaders of the organization and be “misused” like this.
Having discussions without one’s own values and norms interfering is a difficult task. We have been trained well, have ample experience, “we’ve seen it all before”, and would love to put this knowledge and experience to use for our organization, our colleagues or clients. We’d love to help, find the causes of problems (or even point them out based upon our experience) and eliminate them with a well-aimed action. As we do have an opinion on what is presented to us, about the situation we’re confronted with. While the Socratic method asks us to leave our subject matter expertise at home. Making things even more complicated, the leader that often needs to function as the primary “river-bank”, also often is the principal or even direct supervisor of the (internal) Lean coach. At the same time, the Socratic method indicates the ball clearly is in the organization’s court, or even more particularly in its leaders court.
Always use the Socratic Method?
Nevertheless, there surely are cases and (possibly temporary) situations, where the Socratic method is not indicated as the organization, colleague or client has a concrete problem, is looking for concrete (technical, subject matter) assistance and is ready to listen to an expert, consultant or coach. In fact, many will be grateful to you for the help that was offered and the knowledge that was brought to the organization. This may particularly be useful in cases where the nature of the problem often requires more than average Lean subject matter expertise, for instance when the challenge is to create more flow in a complex process.
But even then, Lean consultants and coaches should take care not to fall into the trap that is present in these cases. Because it is very easy to slip back into the traditional behavior of converting and convincing, and of finding the required countermeasures yourself, as this is where the organization that you’re trying to help, stops learning for itself. And that is at the core of creating a Lean organization: that it is autonomous in continually eliminating its problems.
In my experience, the discussion of where to use the Socratic method may play at two different levels: first, at the level of the actual process that is in need of improvement; and secondly at the level of how the organization can create and sustain a culture of continual improvement. And if the consultant or coach does contribute subject matter expertise at any of these two levels, then still he or she should take care to create true insight and understanding (not only knowledge) of the underlying purpose, principles, logic and basic functioning to ensure that these will and can also be productively applied in other situations and by the organization itself.
In conclusion, if a Lean consultant, coach or expert has the ambition to develop the autonomy of an organization, then it is beyond dispute that he or she should master the Socratic method. But that’s not the only thing. In some situations it is required that the Lean consultant also possesses profound subject matter expertise related to topics that one can encounter on the company’s Lean journey towards perfection.
Much of the above is based on the excellent (Dutch) book “Worthless Discussions” written by Martin Appelo (2010) which I recommend to anyone desiring to better understand the Socratic method.